20 years ago, this very album was released by David Laing on his estimable Dog Meat label, and now it is seeing the light of day once again c/o myself (and the fine efforts of those folks thanked in the credits list elsewhere in his booklet). There must be some sort of strange synchronicity going on. I hope this doesn’t confuse you…
The early ’90s was a fairly hot time for underground rock & roll in Melbourne. There were a ton of bands doing the circuit, playing venues such as the Great Britain Hotel (thee epicentre of the time), Punter’s Club, Evelyn and The Tote: some were great, some were terrible. Some of the terrible bands hogged the spotlight and even went on to sell a lot of records. The Powder Monkeys were one of the greatest – if not the best – bands to come out of this quagmire, and for their efforts they did earn themselves some well-earned notoriety throughout that decade and beyond. Sure, there were the stories of debauchery and excess which surrounded the band, but ultimately such factors don’t equate to a lasting musical legacy worth zip 20 years down the line.
People still speak highly of the Powder Monkeys – smart people will always speak highly of the Powder Monkeys – because they were an incredible unit to behold, and you got hooked into their presence. Like the best rock bands, they merged together like an organic unit, the interplay, both musically and personality-wise, between lead heads John Nolan and Tim Hemensley, was a thing of great beauty. I can say this with a straight face: being a young lad going to shows most nights of the week at the time, consuming vast quantities of alcohol and trying to find my place in the world after the alienation of high school, the Powder Monkeys were the rallying point myself and my friends could muster around. I never saw The Stooges in ’71, The Saints in ’76 or Black Flag in ’81, but I saw the Powder Monkeys many, many times, and I figure that gives me at least some bragging rights. When the band first made a dent in the scene in ’91, expectations were high. At that stage, the musical scene coalescing around a loose conglomerate of personalities (a Bermuda Triangle which roughly orbited the GB, Geelong and the Dog Meat label) was starting to seriously take shape. One of the best bands of that era were Dave Thomas’ Bored!, and during their peak years at the dawn of the ’90s, their lineup featured none other than Nolan and Hemensley. Seeing them live several times throughout this period, their unpredictable and sometimes even chaotic and violent live shows fried my teenaged brain. Dave is and always will be a great vocalist and front man, but my eyes were always fixed on his sidemen: they were the fire and ice to his lukewarm water. When word was out that the two former Bored! members had started a new band, expectations, at least amongst my small cotorie of misfit pals, were a-plenty.
What made the Powder Monkeys? When putting together this release, John was recently telling me about the genesis of the band, and certain things he said really nailed it for me: both he and Tim had a desire to create a sound which they felt was very much in the tradition of ’70s pre-punk Australian heavy rock bands such as the Aztecs, Coloured Balls, Buffalo and Rose Tattoo, yet they also had to acknowledge the fact that they hadn’t grown up listening to this kind of music. What had they grown up listening to? What else was etched into their musical DNA? Both could say it was early American hardcore punk, usually of the west coast variety. Whilst comparisons to the PMs were often (rightly) made to Motorhead, and continue to be so, this hybrid of Black Flag (Nolan’s years of Coltrane/Sun Ra absorption paid off in his angular, Ginn-like solos) and the Coloured Balls makes more sense to me, but let’s not argue about such things. There were a myriad factors, both musical and other, which made the group what they were. A band will paint a thousand different pictures to a thousand different people with the same note: I interpreted what I needed to see in the PMs, as you will, because they hit the right note. Tim’s lyrical barbs – spitting untold venom at the world at large, and possibly at me and you – urban white-man blues with a heavy dose of black humour, made for a great accompaniment to Tasmanian transplant Timmy Jack’s razor-sharp percussive hammering and John’s guitar squawls. This wasn’t simply dopey rock & roll, songs of beer-swilling with a boogie beat; Tim had spent a good decade prior to the group’s formation publishing a punk fanzine as a pre-teen and playing in the likes of Royal Flush and the much-loved GOD, and the PMs were the perfect vehicle for his lyrical vitriol. I always say that the best rock & roll is a combination of brain and brawn: the music should exude a muscular physicality, the lyrics should be the counterpoint which shakes the rust from the grey matter. If you were tuned in, you knew the PMs had the smarts.
And all of that waffle brings me to this release. Smashed On A Knee was recorded in the band’s early stages of existence when they were still a five-piece with Adyn Hibbert on rhythm guitar and vocals and Jed Sayers on harmonica. The lineup proved to be short lived, shorn down to the well-known trio of Tim/John/TJ fairly soon thereafter. I saw this configuration a number of times and they always slayed, but to be honest, the sheering of membership veered in the band’s favour. David Laing was keen to get them in the studio when they were still young and hungry, fresh and wanting to prove themselves. Songs were still being fleshed out at the time, there was tension between the core trio of the group and the soon-to-be-exited ones, and some folks in and around the group felt that the recording, in hindsight, may have been done a little too prematurely. The band – and many others – were not particularly happy with the resultant sounds which came to be Smashed On A Knee. The performances were nailed perfectly, Tim’s vocals a barked perfection, but the mix/mastering stage became a shambles, the finished product sounding flat and muddy and lacking the definition it required.
The mastering here, c/o the midas touch of Mikey Young, amends this situation, separating the rhythm section and giving the guitar shards more distinction. In short, at this point in history this is as close as you’re going to get to hering the sheer ferocity of the band live during their crucial early years. You won’t get Tim literally screaming in your face – a man of small stature with a big presence – but you get an inkling of why people would be both so devastated and liberated by their live shows. On a good night, and they had many good nights, they were a force of nature who would blow bands both below and above their billing off the stage and onto the street.
The Powder Monkeys could have been huge, should have been huge, but that was not to be. Various circumstances saw them grabbing defeat from the jaws of victory, and they’ve remained a cult band for those with a clue. Tim Hemensley’s tragic death in 2003 put to rest any ideas of the band making a comeback, but I’m hoping that this release, and the subsequent reissues to come, are at least one of many fitting epitaphs to a band who lit fires under a collective arse and scorched some brains in the process.
Dave Lang, 2013.